Ladder Safety Saves Lives

Building workers inside large construction site, wide angle view

“In construction, the single biggest risk of injury is falling from a ladder,” said Mike Chappell, coordinator of Ontario’s Construction Health and Safety Program.

“Ladders are the most commonly misused piece of equipment in the construction industry,” he stressed.

From 2006 to May 2010, there were 396 fall incidents causing critical injuries. Of those, 127 or 32% were caused by the unsafe use of ladders. During the same period, there were 83 fatalities from falls and 10 to 12% involved ladders.

A pro-active move to reverse this disturbingly high percentage of ladder-related injuries and deaths is driving this month’s Ministry of Labour (MOL) construction safety inspection blitz on Ladder Safety and Fall Protection Hazards.

Here’s a brief thumbnail of the main recommendations for ladder safety:

  • Use a ladder simply for access and egress.
  • Increasingly, scaffolds and platforms are preferred for working at heights above three metres and elevated work platforms and cherry pickers for work areas that are even higher.
  • If there’s no other alternative, work must be performed on a ladder above three metres and if workers cannot maintain three-point contact, it’s imperative for your workers’ safety to provide the right fall protection equipment – harnesses, lanyards and/or lifelines – while they perform their work.

“Often this type of protection for workers is overlooked by employers deciding to use ladders,” Chappell stated.

A far more comprehensive outline of regulations and recommendations zeroing in on the specifics on how to use ladders safely with appropriate fall protection is detailed in the Ladder Use in Construction Guideline   developed in cooperation with the MOL and published last year by the Infrastructure Health and Safety Association (IHSA) based on the Ontario Health and Safety Act (OHSA). It’s definitely worth reading.

One safety measure recommended in this guideline is that employers do Ladder Risk Assessments before deciding to assign workers to use ladders rather than scaffolds when working above grade. This three-part process described in the guideline involves a systematic assessment of the potential risk of the ladder, the worker and the environment.

Although Chappell says it’s an excellent safety tool, he admits these Ladder Risk Assessments are often not done and other safety experts agree.

“In the real world, guys are not going to go through hours of paper work for a 10-minute job,” said Robert Gill, CHRP, CRSP of RMG Consulting Group, Inc.

“I know there has to be something done to curb that 32%, but this is new and the construction industry isn’t yet fully receptive to it.”

Ladders are safe if used properly, but it’s the human element that makes them dangerous, Gill said.

“Workers leave damaged ladders on site that can cause accidents. Another common hazard is when a worker is on a ladder near the edge of a building. If he goes up the ladder and his body is above the guardrail, without a rope guard, harness, lanyard and fixed support, he can fall,” said Gill.

Safety expert Greg Leader of Leader Industries sees lots of workers in the field working from ladders, but too often ladders are used precariously, he noted. Workers straddle ladders on the second rung, without three-point contact and can easily lose their balance and fall backwards.

“Ladders are always going to have a place in this industry –– good quality ladders that are up to code with good quality fall protection equipment –– as long as workers are tied down and the ladders are strongly anchored,” he said.

Guardrails should be the first line of defense, but if that’s not possible, then use ladders with fall protection methods, Leader said.

“The reality is that nobody starts a job to do it unsafely. If a worker is working at three metres or 10-feet, and if the ladder is the only way he can do that job, they must be tied off with fall restrain protection.”

Chappell added that “Ladders are so common, often used at home and they’re not considered hazardous by the average person so users become complacent about the risk in working from ladders.”

“Often workers say they’re only working at height for a ‘second,’ but workers don’t actually use ladders for a second, even if they say they do,” Chappell said.

“They shouldn’t use ladders for extended periods because it’s ergonomically dangerous and workers become tired. Also workers believe if they aren’t maintaining three-point contact, they can save themselves by grabbing side rails as they begin to fall, but by the time they realize they’re falling, it’s too late,” he said.

“We have to change the culture and stress the urgency for employers to invest in good, high quality equipment,” Chappell said. “I often hear people say that they’ll use a ladder and it’s only going to take a minute, but it takes less than a minute to fall. Often the injured worker doesn’t get up from those falls.”

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